IT’S 1963 and schoolgirl Alison Carter has vanished from a remote Northumberland village called Scardale. Her stepfather Philip Hawkin is arrested after a stolen gun and his blood soaked shirt are found linking him to a violent murder scene at Scardale lead mines. But is all as it seems? Is it really that simple?
Nothing, of course, is as it first appears in a Val McDermid novel and the gripping A Place of Execution is no exception. Actor Robson Green took on the challenge of producing the ITV adaptation of this complex and ultimately horrifying tale and he was determined that his recreation of a 1960s police investigation would be as authentic as possible.
Cue the arrival of real-life policeman Eric Lewis who led his own investigations into the big crimes of the day. Eric, a former detective chief superintendent for Northumbria Police, was asked to be police adviser on the set of A Place of Execution.
“You forget just how different things were then. This was before the internet, before computers. In fact, when I started out we didn’t even have a phone or a radio. I used to walk the beat, then I was given a bike to help me get round a bit quicker. We filed all our information away on a giant, round card index. Everything was written down by hand.
“And forensic science was very primitive then. It wasn’t exactly a case of police wading in, in big boots, crushing vital evidence under foot, but it was pretty crude.”
Eric was 16 when he left school to train as a police cadet – his determination to make a difference in his local community fuelled by an early, traumatic experience.
“I was badly beaten up when I was 11 and my parents took me to the local police station,” he said. “I remember them being very kind. It felt like they could sort out anything and the whole experience made a very strong impression on me. It also taught me to face up to my responsibilities. The fight was partly my fault and I had to face up to that.
“By the time I was ready to leave school I knew I wanted to be a policeman. The training was tough but exciting. We did lots of outdoor pursuits, lots of sport. It was very character building. I spent the first four years of my life in calipers, to help straighten my legs and I had been very loved and protected by my parents, sisters and grandparents. But now I was becoming independent, I was growing up and becoming my own person.”
Eric will never forget his first day in uniform. “I was walking along, feeling very proud of myself, when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in Binns’ window. ‘By, that’s a handsome chap’, I thought as I walked straight into a lamp post!”
The early police drama series Z Cars and Dixon of Dock Green helped to paint an often glamorous picture of life in the police force but the reality, as Eric soon found, was far from pretty.
“I was called out on my first road traffic accident and when I got there I found out it was a fatal, involving my neighbour from three doors down. You don’t forget something like that.”
“My life with the church always ran parallel to my life at work and with my family,” he said. “It was a case of never the twain shall meet. Now they are all coming together and it feels so right.”
Eric’s long and illustrious police career took him on an often harrowing, but ultimately life-affirming journey from walking the beat through the streets of Middlesbrough to investigating some of the biggest crimes in the region from the Newcastle riots of 1991 to the IRA bombing of oil and gas targets on Tyneside. He was also a member of Teesside’s first ever drugs squad.
But throughout it all, his faith in God was a constant source of strength, ticking away in the background, waiting for a chance to shine. “I was a bit of a closet Christian then,” he said. “Only my closest friends knew about my faith. It wasn’t something I talked about openly. I had drifted in and out of church for years. When I was little, growing up in Middlesbrough, I used to go with my grandmothers but, after the 11-plus, I cottoned on that going to church was very uncool and stopped.
“Then my mother died when I was 21 and I started to explore my faith again. My grandmother was struggling to get to church and I offered to take her. I was the chauffeur, but I was also starting to think about my faith, what it meant, and where I was heading.
“Life, work, marriage, children took over for a long time and I was happy with that. But when I retired from the police I knew that maybe now was my time to do something about it.”
Eric spent his first few years after retirement supporting his wife, Carol, with her dream of running her own cafe. And together the couple opened 129 Park View in Whitley Bay.
Eric accepts that at first the change of pace in his life was hard, putting a strain on his physical and mental health. “I found retirement very difficult,” he said. “I had gone from being in the top 10 of an organisation in charge of 5,000 people to being number four in a team of three and I lost three stone in 12 months. Retirement was much tougher than I expected. As one parishioner told me recently about her husband: ‘I married him for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. I didn’t marry him for lunch times!’
“Carol promoted me from dish washer to sink technician. Then, one day I heard her refer to me as her marketing manager. I had arrived! But, joking apart, I struggled with the fact that the phones had stopped ringing – that I was out of the loop.”
Today, the phones have started ringing again and Eric is happily taking on the challenge of a whole new vocation as priest in charge at St Mary the Virgin in Ovingham.
“Carol really struggled with the idea of me becoming a priest,” said Eric. “I married a policeman, she told me, I don’t want to be a vicar’s wife. But when the vicar at our local church, St Mary’s in Monkseaton, and my former boss in the police asked me if I had considered ordination, I knew I couldn’t ignore this any longer. I had been a church warden, now I wanted to take the next step and be ordained. And Carol agreed. She told me to go for it. And she has supported me all the way.”
For Eric, coming out of the closet was a big relief. “My life with the church always ran parallel to my life at work and with my family,” he said. “It was a case of never the twain shall meet. Now they are all coming together and it feels so right.”
Eric is now 64 and in his first year as Priest in Charge at Ovingham. “I thought I was too old, that I wouldn’t stand a chance,” said Eric. “But it turns out age and life experience is a vital asset in this job.”
Eric committed to a three-year training course before being offered the job at Ovingham. It’s a non-salaried three-day role, with a house thrown in, in the middle of the community. “It’s down on paper as three days, but of course you can’t clock watch in this job,” he said. “And I wouldn’t want to. I am here, when people want to see me, whatever the time of day or night.
“When I first came here the Mothers’ Union were struggling to find somewhere to meet, so I asked them all here. The house was so packed some had to sit on the stairs but it was good fun. I want people to know that the doors are always open if they need me.”
As a boy Eric admits he wasn’t exactly academic. He left a pretty tough boys’ school in Middlesbrough with ‘O’ levels in woodwork and history and no ambitions for further study. But the fact that he ended up climbing the ranks in the police is a tribute to his determination to succeed, against the odds.
And today he is hoping to inspire other young people to fulfil their potential by forging links with the church and local schools and youth groups in his parish.
“I am constantly amazed by young people today,” he said. “They have so much to offer. And I am passionate about making church relevant to young people today.
“Faith carries you through the big milestones in your life. It’s not just about coming to church on Sunday, but about how you live your life. People today are often seeking a sense of belonging, a sense of community, and their local church can offer all of that – and more.”